Waiwai are the first indigenous people to travel to Gothenburg to work with researchers and the Museum of World Culture to examine the collection of objects that belong to their history.
Photo: Cecilia Sjöberg

From the Amazon rainforest to the collections of the Museum of World Culture


At the Department of Historical Studies, a research project is underway to digitise collections at the Museum of World Culture in collaboration with indigenous peoples from the Amazon rainforest.

Bracelets and hair ornaments for men.
Photo: Cecilia Sjöberg

At the Department of Historical Studies, a research project is underway to digitise collections at the Museum of World Culture in collaboration with indigenous peoples from the Amazon rainforest.

In 2018, the National Museum of Brazil burned down, sparking the idea of "digital repatriation" of the collections. This means making information available digitally, so that the communities to which the objects belonged can access them and also influence how their cultural heritage is presented digitally.

"Four indigenous peoples are currently involved in the research project; Waiwai, Palikur, Munduruku and Ticuna. Representatives from each group will come to Gothenburg to examine the collections", says Cinthya Lana, researcher and anthropologist.

"They will contribute their perspective and stories about the objects and how they were used".

Boat from the rainforest

Eliane Woxixaki shows the main ornament from the collection. In the background, Waiwai's leader, Eliseu Robrigues da Silva.
Photo: Cecilia Sjöberg

The research project is run by the University of Gothenburg in collaboration with the Museum of World Culture. Recently, the first group arrived from the Amazon, Waiwai. After a long journey from the rainforest to Sweden, they got to see the more than 100-year-old objects that are part of their cultural heritage.

"Many of the items are still being made today", says Joao Kaiuri, a spokesperson for Waiwai.

One example is the headdress that Eliane Woxixaki, leader of the Waiwai women's association, brought with her on the trip. It is made of yellow feathers and there is an almost identical ornament in the collection. The group uses headgear both when representing the community in official functions and when celebrating.

For Waiwai, getting the collection in order is important from several aspects. The objects were collected in 1925, during colonialism, and information about them is sketchy, to say the least

Sending photos

Many of the objects have graphic designs, engraved or painted.
Photo: Cecilia Sjöberg

Therefore, the objects need to be documented with the help of Waiwai elders who are still alive and can tell their stories. The Waiwai also want to create their own museum in collaboration with other groups who lived in the Amazon.

"Like the community called Quilombolas, which was made up of enslaved people who escaped and came to live near us in the rainforest," says Joao Kaiuri. We also want to tell their story in our museum.

Today, many of the Waiwai's younger members move to the cities to get an education, losing the history of their people in the process. It is therefore important that there is a museum with the knowledge preserved for the future.

During their visit to the World Culture Museum, they send pictures of the collection to the Amazon elders via their mobile phones to find out more about the objects. In addition to documenting the collection with accurate information, objects will be scanned and 3D printed out in the villages of the Amazon. Which will allow indigenous people to see, read and update information about the objects online.

Internet and solar cells

The Waiwai live in about 40 villages along the border between Brazil and Guyana, in the north-eastern Amazon. In recent years, new technology has become important to them.

"Digitalisation means a lot to our people. It has enabled us to communicate effectively. Especially during the Covid-19 pandemic, we have been able to disseminate information to our entire population".

Waiwai's leader, Eliseu Robrigues da Silva, is also coming to Gothenburg. He has worked hard to ensure that there is internet in every village and that everyone has mobile phones.

"Now we are working to get solar panels to all villages so we don't have to rely on oil for electricity. It's also important for us as indigenous people to be able to contact each other quickly in the villages, for example if someone illegally invades our land or if there's an accident and we need to mobilise".

Fire in the National Museum

Getting to Europe and visiting the museums that hold collections of their cultural heritage is not easy for representatives of indigenous peoples in Brazil.

"On the one hand, the distance to Europe is long for us. We have travelled eight days to get to Gothenburg. First several days by boat on the river to get to the city of Santarém, then 35 hours by plane. The second problem is the language", says Joao Kaiuri.

They speak Portuguese and the Waiwai language and rely on someone to translate for them. The Museum of World Culture has one of the world's largest collections of archaeological and ethnographic objects from Brazil with 11,500 items. Following the fire in Brazil's National Museum, interest in the collection has increased among both the public and researchers. However, the collection has not been extensively studied before.

Exchange students for the project

To begin with, the project is targeting four indigenous peoples.

"Palikur, Ticuna, Munduruki and Waiwai are, so to speak, "pilot" but the hope is that we can do this work with more groups in the long term", says Cinthya Lana.

Cinthya Lana is an anthropologist and researcher at the Department of Historical Studies and is herself from Brazil.

"Next year we hope to welcome another indigenous group, Ticuna, being the largest in the Brazilian Amazon. Of course, a dream would be to have representatives from all the ethnic groups from which there are collections here at the Museum of World Culture".

The university also hopes to recruit four Erasmus+ exchange students after the end of the year, one from each group, to work on the research project.

Text: Cecilia Sjöberg

Eliane Woxixaki explains that the men had long hair, often down to the waist, and how the hair was threaded inside in hair ornaments.
Photo: Cecilia Sjöberg
  • The research project, Digital Repatriation of Amazonian Cultural Heritage, is funded by the Swedish Research Council (2021-2025). In addition to Cinthya Lana, researchers Lilian Rebellato and Adriana Munoz, curator at the World Culture Museum, are associated with the project.
  • The research project is based at the Department of Historical Studies, with the Museum of World Culture as a partner.
  • The project also aims to create a framework for the digital sharing of cultural heritage collections from the museum to indigenous communities. The project hopes to find a methodology and practice that is applicable to other collections as well.